Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The wisdom of crowdsourcing

Far from the nasty comments found on many sites, projects such as SeeClickFix channel participation in constructive, useful ways. The story was routine – but not the way it was reported. Earlier this year the New Haven Independent, a non-profit community website, published an article about "the ugliest storefront on Chapel Street". Members of the public saw an opportunity to push for improvements to a former downtown tattoo parlour, which was being reopened as an AT&T store. The facade, in particular, was considered an eyesore. The Independent reported that it was "pitch black and has a texture that some say looks like rugged Styrofoam".
In most cases reporters don't find out about such slices of urban life unless someone tips them off. In this instance, though, the Independent's managing editor, Melissa Bailey, learned about the building through a website that provides a forum for citizens to post complaints, and for government officials to respond. Known as SeeClickFix, the site is the work of a nationally recognised start-up (the New York Times published a story about it in January) with some 400 media partners, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and, yes, the Independent.

"I spotted the SeeClickFix ticket when it popped up on our homepage through an RSS feed," Bailey recalls. "The story was perfectly lined up – I had the location (pinpointed on a map) and a stream of quotable comments critiquing the facade. All I had to add for the story was a photo of the storefront and a call to the owner." A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to visit SeeClickFix and interview Ben Berkowitz, the chief executive and co-founder, whose second-floor office, as it happens, is located on the aforementioned Chapel Street. Looking like a stereotypical tech entrepreneur, casually dressed, with several days' growth of beard, Berkowitz, 31, told me the inspiration for SeeClickFix came when he was trying to get graffiti cleaned up in his own New Haven neighborhood.

"SeeClickFix is a tool that lets citizens report anything that they want improved in their community," he says. Since its launch in 2008, he adds, the company has grown to five full-time employees thanks to a $25,000 We Media "PitchIt!" prize for innovation and several hundred thousand dollars' worth of venture capital. Though the company is not yet profitable, he says he hopes it will be soon on the strength of advertising revenues and custom services he provides to some of his clients (basic access is free).

Berkowitz may not have conceived of SeeClickFix as something that would interest news organisations. But he says he soon discovered it enabled a grassroots style of community journalism that had almost gone out of fashion. For instance, one of the site's first breaks came when Berkowitz stumbled upon a pothole map on the Boston Globe's website. He called an editor and told him he could help the Globe do it better. Soon he had a major client.

"I remember this guy from the Associated Press saying to me, 'This is what I used to do when I was 22 years old and I was starting the beat. I would go out and I would report potholes,'" says Berkowitz. "This is what it's all about. The local press, strapped on resources, having to think more efficiently, more like a start-up, figuring out how to use citizen resources to hold governments accountable."

The Guardian is involved with a similar project, mySociety, on its local sites, including those that cover Leeds, Cardiff and Edinburgh.

SeeClickFix and mySociety are classic examples of crowdsourcing, a term coined by Jeff Howe in a 2006 Wired magazine article and subsequent book to refer to technology-enhanced efforts to tap into the knowledge of large groups of people.

For those discouraged by the banality and sheer nastiness of typical news-site comments, projects such as SeeClickFix and mySociety (whose endeavours include the FixMyStreet site) are an example of how to channel audience participation in constructive, useful ways.

Consider, for example, how SeeClickFix enabled Melissa Bailey and the New Haven Independent to tell the story of "the ugliest storefront on Chapel Street". Bailey reported that 42 people had posted complaints about the building. She quoted a city development official named Pedro Soto, who had written, "This poor building is a dagger in the heart of New Haven". She also quoted several other complaints posted on the site, a few anonymous, and one from Berkowitz himself.

Not every SeeClickFix campaign ends satisfactorily. The AT&T store owner, Pete Persano, told Bailey last January that he was "willing to make changes". As of Monday night, though, the issue was still listed as "open" – unresolved, in other words.

Yet perhaps things are looking up. The building may not be beautiful on the outside. But according to a commenter named Rigel Janette, the AT&T outlet and its co-tenant, a food store, have been making improvements to the interior. "The AT&T store is pretty nice on the inside, standard modern classy phone store. And the Edible Arrangements – I really suggest for people to stop by sometime!" wrote Janette.

When I asked Berkowitz whether he considered SeeClickFix to be journalism, he demurred. "I think SeeClickFix is a tool for journalists," he says. "I don't think that I am a journalist. I don't think of us as a news organisation."

Yet, Paul Bass, the Independent's editor and publisher, begs to differ.

"I think SeeClickFix is journalism, in its purest and rawest form," Bass told me by email. "It brings out information that journalists wouldn't have known about, information that often leads to good stories upon further investigation. It also makes things happen. In New Haven it has restored my faith in democracy as I've watched city officials monitor the site and act upon its complaints."

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